The Real Andrew Sullivan Scandal

His Private Life Is None of Our Business. His Public Life Certainly Is.

Reporters who visited his Web site at the height of the scandal were greeted with the following comment: If you "want a quote from me about the details of my sex life, feel free to use the following: 'It is none of your business.' " Sullivan is right about that. His sex life is not the issue. The real scandal is why he is America's most prominent gay writer.

Not long ago, it was impossible to imagine a gay columnist at America's paper of record. The Times was legendary for its cold shoulder to gay activists, and its city room was considered hell on homosexual reporters. But the paper has changed dramatically. Gay men rank among its most influential staffers, and its coverage has been instrumental in the progress of gay rights. So it wasn't entirely a surprise when a gay writer was given a prime slot at the Times magazine in 1998. But why this gay writer?

Illustration by Gary Aagaard

Imagine Ward Connerly, the black opponent of affirmative action—or a scathing antifeminist like Katie Roiphe—getting a column on race or women's issues in the Times. Yet when it comes to gays, the more "politically incorrect" you are—and the more cutting toward queer culture—the farther you get in the liberal media.

Consider Camille Paglia, the attack dyke who graces the virtual pages of Salon. Not many people hold Matthew Shepard responsible for the torture he suffered, but Paglia has. Not many columnists refer to fragile men as "sissies," but Paglia does. Not many people still think gay men are shaped by "some protracted childhood trauma [that] has overwhelmed nature's pleasure-giving hormonal promptings," but Paglia believes precisely that. Her pronouncement is the premise of Christian corrective therapy. Yet her throwback persona is precisely what makes her a draw. Like Sullivan, Paglia relies on gay-culture bashing to certify herself as an independent thinker. And like Sullivan, she thrives on the sexual backlash.

These gayocons stand outside the tradition of queer humanism that runs from Oscar Wilde and E.M. Forster to James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, and Allen Ginsberg. The moral core of this lineage—its compassion, its critique of power, its respect for the sexual—still informs queer culture. It is gay liberation. But this sensibility is barely visible in the liberal media. (You have to read the radical press to find the real thing.) What has emerged instead reflects the uneasiness that remains about gay coverage, even as genteel acceptance has replaced active abhorrence. No matter how secure we may feel, the fact is that gay people live in a halfway house at best. We are out on parole.

The anxieties created by this uncertain status are felt by gays and straights alike. They are expressed in the Sullivan-Paglia persona. These writers have the moral flexibility, the self-satisfaction, and the style—charm laced with cruelty—that the times demand.

Why are attack queers so appealing to straight liberals? The fact is that launching an attack on gay "orthodoxies" is the surest route to celebrity for a homosexual thinker. Anyone who breaks with the movement is called courageous; anyone who mocks queer mores is seen as a true individual. In reality, writers like Paglia and Sullivan are reassuring rogues, affirming the biases that straights dare not admit they hold. Revulsion at gay sexuality remains imbedded in the liberal mind. Attack queers speak to that hidden loathing, expressing their audience's forbidden feelings. They are as nasty as straight liberals wanna be.

None of this would be an issue if the liberal media presented a full range of gay and lesbian writing. Sullivan's secret sex life wouldn't be such a story if he weren't the head house-homo. But the same system that empowers him also limits the number of queer voices in the mainstream media. Voltaire once said about experimenting with homosexuality, "Once, a philosopher; twice, a pervert." So it is in the liberal press: Once a queer columnist has been hired, the quota is filled; to bring on a second or a third risks being too close for comfort.

On the road to freedom, every step is a transition. The time may come when it isn't necessary for openly gay writers to devour their own in order to find a place in the sun. But before that can occur, liberals will have to examine the reasons why they take such delight in attack queers. As things stand, it's easier for editors to close ranks around the designated deviant than to consider the reasons for his rise. And easier for activists to attack the king of the mountain than to ask why the slope is so steep.

Research: Ben Silverbush

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